On November 30, 2015

Task force on legalization: much evidence of negative effects of marijuana

By Debby Haskins, executive director, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM-VT)

Early last summer, the Vermont Department of Health formed a broad-based task group to conduct a health impact assessment for legalizing marijuana in Vermont. On Oct. 29, the group gave a progress report on the first steps, which included a survey of 185 published scientific studies on the harms and benefits of marijuana use. The presentation was well attended by the media, though it seems that some of the reporters were not paying much attention.

Several publications ran misleading headlines about the report along the lines of VTDigger’s “Health Effects of Marijuana Largely Unknown, Experts Say.” Although more research needs to be done, the survey of current research turned up solid evidence of far more harm than benefit.

There is “a strong base of evidence to connect [marijuana use] to impaired driving. There’s a strong base of evidence that shows early intake, younger intake of marijuana use is definitely associated with long-term addiction and substance abuse,” Heidi Klein, a board member for the Vermont Public Health Association, told WCAX.

Some background

Vermont already regulates marijuana. For the past two years, marijuana has been a decriminalized substance–still illegal, but simple possession or use is not treated as a felony, or even a misdemeanor offense. The task group’s work was framed as a “what if” question: What if marijuana were to be legalized? It was not framed as a done deal. The task group could recommend that decriminalization be expanded in some way, and there are other solutions we should consider as alternatives to commercialization or a pot monopoly.

The task group identified 24 health indicators that would be impacted one way or another by legalization of marijuana. These indicators included questions about driving ability (does marijuana use improve or impair it?), mental health (psychosis and other problems), addiction potential and more.

Rated evidence

The group also rated the strength of the evidence supporting the harm or benefit according to this scale:

* Not well researched

** Fair amount of evidence

*** Strong evidence

**** Very strong evidence

The group reported that only one health indicator–short-term airflow in breathing–is improved with marijuana use, and that there is strong evidence (three stars) to support this. That’s the only health indicator on the “benefit” side.

By contrast, the group found that 17 of the 24 health indicators (including long-term airflow) grow worse with marijuana use. Ratings on the evidence ranged from two stars (Fair amount of evidence) to four (Very strong evidence).

For two of the health indicators–lung cancer and non-lung cancer–the harm/benefit impact was labeled “Unclear” and given one star (“Not well researched”). “Youth Use” received a one-star rating as did several other indicators. The health indicator “Ski Safety” also was not rated, but it was labeled “No research.” (Perhaps a few more years of experimentation in Colorado will clear up this point.)

Recommendations forthcoming

The next step for the task group as a whole will be developing recommendations based, at least in part, on the table of health impacts (which will be completed by the end of the month). The members are not all in agreement on the issue of legalization, so those discussions could be quite contentious, despite the heavy evidence of worse health impacts from marijuana use. Given the restrictions imposed by the need to compromise, their recommendations might well turn out to be somewhat vague.

Sam-VT believes that the best course at this time would be to wait until we have more data, so those health indicators marked “Needs more research” can be accounted for.

If the health impacts reported by the task group are ignored, and the recommendations include turning marijuana into a consumer item in Vermont, we can be sure that all of the negative health impacts will be made worse.

The table of marijuana health indicators presented by the Vermont Department of Health on Oct. 29 is available at mountaintimes.info. The final report, to be released in December, may include revisions to the table.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana is a bipartisan organization dedicated to a science-based approach to marijuana legalization. SAM’s Mission & Vision reads: “Smart Approaches to Marijuana envisions a society where marijuana policies are aligned with the scientific understanding of marijuana’s harms, and the commercialization and normalization of marijuana are no more. Our mission is to educate citizens on the science of marijuana and to promote health-first, smart policies and attitudes that decrease marijuana use and its consequences.”

For more information on SAM’s mission and vision, the organization, its activities and findings, visit its official site: learnaboutsam.org

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